After Ash Wednesday services this week, Father Charlie caught me in my office eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Guess we’re not observing that whole fasting thing, huh?” he joked with me. We then talked about how both of us struggle with fasting. Prone to being what some call “hangry,” or in my case of low-blood sugar, even faint, neither of us is particularly good at fasting. When I was finally diagnosed with having low-blood sugar many years ago, a great mystery was solved. Upon hearing the news, all of my friends would, with relief, say, “Oh! That explains soooo much!” Only then did I discover my friends had been involved in a huge coping conspiracy. Jennifer is acting weird or annoying or cranky – who has food? I may even be the inspiration behind those Snickers commercials where cranky people are suddenly transformed back to their lovely selves as soon as they get the candy bar.
The trouble with people like me, or maybe even most of us, is that we hear the temptations of Jesus today and we immediately see ourselves in them. We think about the times we have been hangry or desperate for food, and we know the difficulty of the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. Or maybe we relate more to the temptation of the ego to be all powerful, or to temptation to test God, just to be sure we are secure in God’s protection. Because the temptations in the gospel lesson are so relatable, we can almost too easily see ourselves in them and miss the point. You see, the temptations of Jesus aren’t really about bread, power, and safety. Just like the Lenten disciplines we take up are not really about chocolate, scripture reading, or prayer. The temptations of Jesus are about something much deeper: they are about identity.
In Luke’s gospel, Luke has already described Jesus’ baptism by John, when God declares, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, just before this passage, Luke articulates the genealogy of Christ, emphasizing the importance of who Jesus is based on his ancestors. So, when Jesus goes into the wilderness, the devil is not actually trying to tempt Jesus with bread, power, and safety. No, Jesus is being tempted to deny his identity. As Karoline Lewis says, “the identity test for Jesus is not so much a test of who he is, but how he will live out his identity as Son of God. The devil knows perfectly well who Jesus is. The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is…”[i]
And that is a temptation we understand all too well. “…temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship. Too often Christians have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God.”[ii] In the end, the temptations Jesus faces could be anything. They could certainly be “Bread, power, and safety. But [the temptations] just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security.” The devil does not care about the content of the temptation. The devil seeks “to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity.”[iii]
In part, that is why we take on disciplines during Lent. We fast, pray, and study Scripture not because we need to imitate Jesus’ temptation. We give up chocolate, coffee, or wine, or we take up kindness, fitness, or quiet not to simply push ourselves into new patterns. We take on disciplines in Lent because we need to remind ourselves of our genealogy – to remind ourselves that we too are beloved children of God. We know that when we claim that blessed status as beloved children of God, the devil will try to make us doubt the abundant, enduring, graceful love of God for each of us. Because only when we doubt or forget our identity do we really fall into the temptations of this world.
No matter what our spiritual discipline, our invitation this Lent is to reclaim our identity. Our invitation is to use these forty days to reaffirm, to recover, to reassert we are beloved children of God. In yoga speak, when we have distracting thoughts, we are encouraged to acknowledge the thought, and then let the thought go. Our invitation is to do the same this Lent. As the devil puts distracting thoughts of inadequacy, unworthiness, and insecurity in our minds, we acknowledge them for what they are, and let them go. Because we are beloved children of God. Because when we boldly remind the devil that we are beloved children of God, we are empowered to remind others they are beloved too. Together, affirmed in our identity, renewed in Christ’s love and light, we can do the real work of Lent – not just showing the world we are beloved children of God, but transforming that same world through our beloved status. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Identity Test,” March 3, 2019, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294 on March 7, 2019.
[ii] David Lose, “Lent 1C: Identity Theft,” March 7, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/lent-1-c-identity-theft/ on March 7, 2019.